Port Talbot steelworks with road in foreground

Port Talbot steelworks with road in foreground

The Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) Bill - Cleaning up Wales’ air?

Published 15/06/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government for 2021-2026 reiterated its commitment to introduce a Clean Air Act for Wales, consistent with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance.

The much-anticipated Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) (Wales) Bill was introduced to the Senedd in March, with the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure (CCEI) Committee recently undertaking its Stage 1 scrutiny.

But what does the Bill do and what’s next?

What’s the pollution problem?

On a global scale, the WHO says combined effects of ambient air pollution and household air pollution are associated with 6.7 million premature deaths annually. The burden of poor air in the UK is estimated to be the equivalent of between 29,000 and 43,000 deaths per year.

In Wales, Healthy Air Cymru says air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to public health, second only to smoking and contributes to the climate and nature emergencies we face.

Clean air is also a social justice issue - researchers have described a ‘triple jeopardy effect’ where those from a lower socio-economic status are exposed to higher levels of pollution leading to an increased risk of poor health. A 2016 study found air pollution to be higher in Wales’ most deprived areas and concluded that air pollution, deprivation and health are inextricably linked.

As explored in our 2021 article, some areas in Wales have breached pollutant limits for several years, culminating in the Welsh Government being taken to court for its lack of action. The High Court ruled that the Welsh Government’s approach to tackling exceedances of nitrogen dioxide limits at that time was unlawful.

The most recent DEFRA air pollution compliance assessment (2021) shows the South Wales Zone still failing to meet the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide – a limit which should have been met by 2015.

What does the Bill do?

The Welsh Government says the Bill is part of a package of measures set out in its Clean Air Plan to reduce air pollution.

If enacted, the Bill would:

  • create an air quality target setting framework allowing the Welsh Ministers to set Wales-specific targets for air pollutants – although it would only require a target to be set for fine particulate matter(PM2.5);
  • require the Welsh Ministers to consult on and publish a national air quality strategy;
  • place a duty on the Welsh Ministers to promote awareness of air pollution;
  • aim to strengthen the Local Air Quality Management regime, requiring any actions/standards in a local authority’s Air Quality Action Plan to contain a date for compliance agreed with the Welsh Ministers;
  • aim to improve enforcement of emissions in Smoke Control Areas, switching from criminal to civil sanctions;
  • expand the circumstances under which the Welsh Ministers can introduce trunk road charging schemes;
  • allow the Welsh Ministers to set a monetary range within which penalty charges for vehicle idling offences can be issued; and
  • place a duty on the Welsh Ministers to publish a national soundscapes strategy – something that was not included in the Welsh Government’s White Paper consultation.

What’s the reaction been?

When introduced to the Senedd, Members from across the Chamber broadly welcomed the Bill. Responding to the CCEI Committee’s consultation, stakeholders have also generally supported its principles.

Healthy Air Cymru told the Committee that if passed, the Bill “would make a major change to our public health and our environment”. However, it went on say it “could be stronger” and cautioned that:

…if a Minister came into position who was not as keen on this agenda, in theory not much would actually change.

The requirement for the Welsh Minister’s to set a target for PM2.5 has been welcomed, but many have questioned why this must now be set within three years of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, compared to the two years proposed in the White Paper. Professor Enda Hayes of the University of the West of England told the Committee “ we can be a lot more ambitious in terms of the timelines, the targets and how we are going to get there”.

Many stakeholders, including the British Medical Association, Healthy Air Cymru, NHS Confederation and Living Streets are concerned that the Bill doesn’t require any targets set to be consistent with levels included in WHO guidance. That the Programme for Government commits to introducing “a Clean Air Act for Wales, consistent with WHO guidance” was highlighted to the Committee.

The Bill only requires a target to be set for PM2.5 and no other pollutants (although the Welsh Government could do so if it wished), which has also been questioned.

Current WHO guidelines cover several pollutants: PM10, PM2.5, Ozone, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide. Healthy Air Cymru says the Bill should include a requirement for targets to be set for all pollutants covered by the guidelines.

Others , including Natural Resources Wales (NRW), have called for a requirement to set a target for ammonia – which is not included in the WHO guidelines. A recent study found that agricultural emissions, the dominant source of ammonia emissions, are responsible for more than a quarter of particle pollution in UK cities. The UK Climate Change Committee’s June 2023 progress report on reducing emissions in Wales found there has been little progress made in reducing agricultural emissions.

Amendments to existing LAQM legislation that would be made by the Bill have been broadly welcomed. Healthy Air Cymru suggests the current process is “inadequate, creates confusion for the public and gives a false picture of the air pollution challenges Wales faces”.

Aspects of the Bill relating to vehicle emissions have also been mostly welcomed by the health and environmental sectors. The Welsh Ministers currently have powers to create trunk road charging schemes in very limited, specific circumstances. The Bill would enable charging schemes to be introduced “for the purpose of reducing or limiting air pollution”.

The Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum refers to these powers being used to create charging Clean Air Zones (CAZs) - where certain vehicles may be charged for entering - although it says there are currently “no commitments to introduce CAZs anywhere in Wales”. Concerns raised with the Committee mostly relate to the design of any schemes – with Public Health Wales highlighting the potential for schemes to disproportionately impact those from lower socio-economic groups. The Road Haulage Association, while supporting the ambition of the Bill has “significant concerns” over trunk road charging schemes.

Sustrans, Living Streets and Cycling UK all suggest the net proceeds from any scheme should be ring-fenced for public transport and active travel – as drafted the Bill doesn’t restrict how proceeds can be used.

The inclusion of soundscapes in the Bill was not included in the White Paper consultation but evidence heard by the Committee shows support for the approach, with many acknowledging the links between air quality and noise. Defined by the Welsh Government as “the acoustic (i.e. sound) environment as perceived or experienced and/or understood by a person or people, in context”, the Bill would require the Welsh Ministers to publish a national soundscapes strategy.

The Institute of Acoustics told the Committee Wales is “at the forefront” of embedding soundscapes into legislation.

What’s next?

The CCEI Committee will publish its stage 1 report shortly with a Plenary debate due to take place after the Summer recess . Should the general principles of the Bill be agreed it’ll move on to Stage 2 of the legislative process.

Keep a look out for more publications from us as the Bill progresses through the Senedd.

Article by Francesca Howorth, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament